Excerpts from Baker Roshi’s Forthcoming Book
WHY I PRACTICE ZEN BUDDHISM
If I am going to recommend Zen practice, I should tell you why I have practiced now for fifty years. This may help you to be realistic about how practice could affect you. What has been possible for me is probably also possible for you – and, of course, more and different.
I practice Zen because I enjoy it. I also practice for practical reasons and so-called spiritual reasons. The practical reasons are that it has given me a chance to observe, accept, develop, and intervene within my emotional habits and psychological patterns. Just developing a state of mind within which it is possible to observe these patterns helps immensely. Little by little, and sometimes dramatically, it’s possible to change the emphases, associations, and agendas of our patterns. If our mind becomes freer, more open, more flexible, and more integrated in its functioning, then our deepest intentions, feelings, and emotions have a wider field in which to play and evolve — and to change us into the person we feel most satisfied being.
Of course, there are many teachings other than Zen Buddhism that can provide perspective and help. Just getting older and maturing helps. Psychotherapy can help. Psychotherapy has helped me personally – and it has also helped me to understand how to practice Zen in psychotherapeutic ways.
Another reason I practice Zen is because joy returns to ordinary things. Through zazen-meditation, perceiving and thinking return to their roots in appreciation. We often lose touch with such simple things as: ease, rest, caring, gratefulness, the sound of birds, a leaf, a flower, another person, a baby, the shine of water, the sound of rain, the space of the sky, the wideness of this spacious earth. Fernando Pessoa’s poem:
The startling reality of things
Is my discovery every single day.
Every thing is what it is.
And this suffices me.
I find just hearing the wind blow,
Makes life worth living.
While these basic things are always present, they can fade into the background of our experience. Growing-up, I had grown away from much of the joy I knew as a child. But meditation and mindfulness practices brought joy back – first as a taste, then as a presence that has become the basis of living.
What are the spiritual, numinous, religious, and transformative reasons I practice Zen? Through meditation and mindfulness, I have found a relatively unobstructed interior freedom. When it is not there, when I feel obstructed, I know how to make my way back to this interior freedom. Through Zen practice, I have a physical knowledge of the mind of freedom. And I know it is always there, even when I don’t experience it. If I can be alert and patient, I find that obstructions usually precede an increased clarity, openness, and relevant thinking. Then there is the bliss of breath and of a stable field-of-mind.
Another fruit of practice is the experience of belonging to a world of sensuous-sensorial-relatedness. It is a feeling of connectedness, a feeling of intimacy with people even when first meeting them, and a feeling of familiarity with situations even when situations are new. You feel you belong in and to this world. You feel at home. This is a direct experience of interdependence; it is the foundation of compassion.
Another fruit is the experience of coming into an inner order of mind and body, an integration which allows a precise engagement with oneself, with phenomena, and with the gait of the world. Things glow. We know the world in its magical show of momentariness. We feel part of and engaged with the mystery of the world beyond mental and sensorial formations.
There is the satisfaction of a practice, a Way we never reach the end of, yet a Way which always suffices. Each day, each period of zazen-meditation, each breath, each momentary appearance has its own particularity, disclosure, and engagement. Vitality enfolds, holds, and unfolds each moment.
For those of you who have come to know the transformative power of regular sitting-meditation, especially long sittings like sesshins, you will know that there are also the purging, cathartic, illuminative, transformative experiences that arise in and through meditation.
There are things harder to explain. For example, the experience of an inner ease and bliss that doesn’t go away, but which is still renewed in meditation. The experience of an extended body, a body-field, a presence and space of relationships. A tactual, actuating, knowing space that folds out from us and can be folded into us. Dogen, the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen Master, called this the True Human Body. Finally, there is the acceptance, the understanding, that the experience of a Buddha is a real possibility.